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Lincoln: A Contemporary Portrait, edited by Allan Nevins and Irving Stone. (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962) 226 pp.

This is a collection of twelve essays written at the height of the Civil War Centennial. Ably edited by Allan Nevins and Irving Stone, this book takes a broad view of Lincoln and (for the time) items that many historians weren't talking about. Like most edited collections, some are better than others. All are reminiscent of their time (no surprise there) but very few of these would be relevant to today's time. As I will discuss later, there is one deeply troubling omission from the book which further negates its usefulness.

My interest in this book stemmed from the first essay by Nevins entitled "Lincoln's Ideas of Democracy." As part of an article I'm writing for the Indiana Magazine of History on Tarbell's study of Lincoln's Indiana years, one of my contentions is that Tarbell viewed the Indiana frontier as the perfect birthplace for Lincoln's democratic spirit. Yet, trying to find details of how to define that spirit are maddingly thin. As Nevins points out, however, the reason for that is because Lincoln, like the vast majority of his predecessors and contemporaries, lived his democratic values rather than analyze them. Indeed, historians for several years have had a hard time agreeing as to what the term "democracy" even means.

Another interesting essay was contributed by Fawn Brodie. It was on the relationship between Lincoln and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. Brodie, who in 1959 wrote a biography of Stevens entitled Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, brought out interesting and (at least to me) unknown points about Stevens. Most important was Brodie's contention that while Stevens and Lincoln disagreed on several different points of Reconstruction, neither would have wanted to execute Confederate leaders (which, as Brodie points out, was an about-face for Stevens). "It is not generally known that Stevens, who had many times demanded the hanging of the Confederate leaders, made an about face, near the end of the war, and insisted that they could not be legally hanged since Lincoln had granted the Confederacy belligerent rights," Brodie asserts. "Later he even offered his services as a lawyer to defend both Jefferson Davis and Clement C. Clay against the treason charge." However, while Lincoln's aversion to hanging stemmed from mercy, Brodie notes that Stevens used his as a weapon, noting that Davis declined his services because he saw it as well. "I was aware of his line of argument," Davis wrote later. "It would have been that the seceding States were conquered provinces...therefore their property was subject to confiscation and the people to such penalties and conditions as the conquerors might impose."

Other essays include Harold Hyman on the relationship between Lincoln and Edwin M. Stanton and Jay Monaghan on books and libraries in Lincoln's time. In addition to several noted academic historians, Nevins and Stone turn to non-academics as well, including playwright Norman Corwin on Lincoln and Stephen Douglas and a former judge, Sherrill Halbert, whose grandfather was a slaveholder, on Lincoln's suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus. Mort Lewis, a television personality on the west coast at the time, contributed an interesting essay on Lincoln's humor while Davis Miller's contribution on Lincoln and the Sioux outbreak was, for the time, groundbreaking and one imagines, somewhat shocking to the majority white population of the time.

Weaker essays include a survey of biographical studies of Lincoln by Andrew Rolle, who while praising Sandburg and Tarbell among others, has too much of the anti-Herndon bias inculcated to him by the Randall-Angle Springfield-Champaign Urbana axis so prevalent at the time. Poet Marianne Moore's essay on "Lincoln and the Art of the Word" seemed somewhat esoteric and didn't appeal to me. Neither did Justin Turner's critique of the Hampton Roads Peace Conference or William E. Marsh's biography of Henry W. Halleck.

Equally interesting as some of the essays was the appendix, where the authors were asked to comment upon their work. Most used the space to discuss their own travails in writing biography, especially of someone like Lincoln. One strong point in Rolle's otherwise lackluster critique of Lincoln biography was his contention that in a list of most-written about biographical characters, the four main figures (Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) outnumbered in total books written THE NEXT 40 subjects on the list combined! Equally important, in Rolle's opinion, are the supporting cast of characters in the Lincoln story. Where is the biographer of Leonard Swett, or David Davis since Willard King's book written almost 60 years ago? What of Orville Browning or a group biography of those lawyers who rode with Lincoln on Illinois' Eighth Judicial Circuit? Such studies would only enrich our understanding of Lincoln by giving us a clearer picture of the times in which he lived, and those people whom he encountered.

"Concentration on the major figures has its drawbacks," Rolle argues. " As Michael Kraus sees it, in the public mind the Lincolns and Washingtons can do no wrong and their rivals can do no right. Distortion of history sets in , and myth-making supplants historical objectivity. We take our heroes and bend them to our wishes." While no one can disagree with that, it's instructive to see the arc of Lincoln biography since Rolle's assessment and how such biographers as Douglas Wilson, Rodney K. Davis, Michael Burlingame and Ronald C. White have met that challenge head on and given us a much more true-to-life picture of just who Abraham Lincoln was.

It's doubtful that if I wasn't interested in Nevins's analysis of Lincoln's view of democracy that I would have ever discovered this book. Given its age and certain weaknesses in both argument and style, it's hard to give this more than a passing grade. Yet, if one looks at it as a relic of its time, the value becomes much more apparent. It presents a detailed picture of the Nationalistic school of Lincoln studies that was at its zenith during the centennial of the war. Sadly, the most glaring omission of the book is that the editors failed to commission a study of Lincoln and African-Americans given that the collection came out the same year that Benjamin Quarles published Lincoln and the Negro. Given the growing militancy of blacks struggling for the rights that hundreds of thousands of soldiers, not to mention their commander-in-chief, died almost a hundred years earlier for makes that especially frustrating, given that Nevins was one of the most conspicuous of 20th century American liberals.

Best
Rob
(06-02-2017 07:48 PM)Rob Wick Wrote: [ -> ]As part of an article I'm writing for the Indiana Magazine of History on Tarbell's study of Lincoln's Indiana years, one of my contentions is that Tarbell viewed the Indiana frontier as the perfect birthplace for Lincoln's democratic spirit.

That's great, Rob. Please let us know when it's published.
Thanks for this great review, Rob. I enjoyed reading it and I think it could be interesting to look at these essays. It's interesting how different eras tend to interpret matters "their way".
Quote:That's great, Rob. Please let us know when it's published.

Will do, Roger. I had originally submitted a finished article to the IMOH but it was rejected. The editor felt my focus needed to be more on the Tarbell-Democracy question and invited me to rewrite and resubmit. I almost declined because this is the fourth time I've completely rewritten the piece, which started out as a speech to an Indiana genealogical society. Given that I've had to do new research, the work is slow going.

Quote:It's interesting how different eras tend to interpret matters "their way".

Eva,

That's one of the main reasons why I find historiographical studies so interesting. There are clearly defined "eras" of Lincoln biography that tell us as much about the writers and their times as it does about Lincoln. Thanks for the kind words.

Best
Rob
Rob,
Looking forward to reading your article for" Indiana Magazine of History" to see how Tarbell,as you contend, " viewed the Indiana frontier as the perfect birthplace for Lincoln's democratic spirit."

As to "Yet, trying to find details of how to define that spirit are maddeningly thin.", I came across this article a while ago but don't have access. Have you seen it?

"Tracing the Roots of Lincoln's Democratic Vision"
Joseph R. Fornieri
OAH Magazine of History (2009) 23 (1): 11-16.
DOI:
https://doi.org/10.1093/maghis/23.1.11
Published:
01 January 2009

Rob, was Tarbell influenced by Turner's Frontier Thesis?
(06-05-2017 04:10 PM)Anita Wrote: [ -> ]As to "Yet, trying to find details of how to define that spirit are maddeningly thin.", I came across this article a while ago but don't have access. Have you seen it?

"Tracing the Roots of Lincoln's Democratic Vision"
Joseph R. Fornieri
OAH Magazine of History (2009) 23 (1): 11-16.

Anita, please go here and scroll down to p. 11.
Anita,

Thanks for the information. I do have Fornieri's books and had planned to consult them for the article.

As for your question on Tarbell and Turner, I don't think a case can be made that Tarbell was directly influenced by Turner. I've never seen any references to him by her in her papers (realizing, of course, that much of her McClure's correspondence was destroyed in 1917 when the magazine moved offices) but there was no personal correspondence in her papers either.

As a preview, here's portions of what I've written in the article.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born November 6, 1857, in the northwestern Pennsylvania community of Hatch Hollow. She recalled in her autobiography, All in the Day’s Work, that had the Panic of 1857 not occurred, she would have been born in Iowa, where her parents, Franklin and Sarah Tarbell, planned to move. “Like all young married people of pioneer ancestry and experience having their way to make my parents wanted land,” Tarbell wrote. “Land of their own combined with what my father could make at his profession as a teacher and his trade as a joiner, meant future security. It was the proved way of the early American.” In the wake of the panic, Tarbell’s mother was forced to remain in Pennsylvania.
The aborted move was Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis in practice. Although each pursued different paths in obtaining their Progressive credentials—Tarbell with the journalist’s pen and Turner in the role of the academic—both believed Lincoln embodied a spirit of democracy peculiar to the Northwest Territory. Tarbell and Turner held a shared belief as to what the frontier meant to Lincoln’s development as a man, first in Kentucky where no one ever fathomed that Lincoln could end up in the White House; then to the heavy woods of Indiana where Lincoln grew from boy to young man, and finally to Illinois, where, thanks to those frontier influences, Lincoln became the man who would lead the country through its most divisive time.


And later

Both also saw Lincoln’s frontier experience through an economic prism. In 1903, Turner wrote in the Atlantic Monthly a comparison of the pioneer life of Andrew Jackson and Lincoln. “Jackson’s democracy was contentious, individualistic, and it sought the ideal of local self-government and expansion.” Lincoln’s on the other hand, could thrive only on the development of industry and the rise of communities, Turner argued.
“To widen the area of the clearing, to contend with one another for the mastery of the industrial resources of the rich provinces, to struggle for a place in the ascending movement of society, to transmit one’s offspring the chance for education, for industrial betterment, for the rise in life which the hardships of the pioneer existence denied to the pioneer himself, these were some of the ideals of the region to which Lincoln came,” Turner wrote.
Lincoln, Tarbell noted, was committed to the use of capital by all levels of society. For Lincoln, capital was not “brewed in a bowl by bankers and brokers” only for themselves. Rather, Lincoln, whom Tarbell argued knew very well what she termed “the dignity of labor,” believed that capital was subservient to labor and was an equal benefit for all those on the frontier who attempted to work their way into prosperity by the sweat of their brow or, as in Lincoln’s case, by the development of their mind. These sentiments, Tarbell noted, became evident to Lincoln as he studied the world around him growing into manhood on the Indiana frontier.
It becomes evident that the lens that Turner and Tarbell viewed both their own world and the world that Lincoln inhabited was sharpened by their own Progressive beliefs. While Turner and Tarbell accepted the role capitalism played in American society, both expressed concern with the rise of the industrial baron and his effects on American democracy. For Turner, the vast resources that America enjoyed “has produced the rise of those captains of industry whose success in consolidating economic power now raises the question as to whether democracy under such conditions can survive.” Turner worriedly asked “is there in reality evolving such a concentration of economic and social power in the hands of a comparatively few men as may make political democracy an appearance rather than a reality.”
Tarbell, who published her two-volume history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company a year after Turner’s article appeared, was blunter in her assessment of the nation’s current economic leaders and their effect on democracy. Calling the period in which Turner’s article on democracy appeared “an Age of Banditry,” Tarbell credited big business for having the far-sightedness to see what would be necessary to control the newly-discovered wealth of ore, coal and oil, but noted they only exploited what others had discovered, i.e., the “hundreds upon hundreds of prospectors, with knap sacks on their backs and picks in their hands, hundreds and hundreds of wildcatters, drilling holes in the ground” who found the wealth, which then was seized by the “bandits.”


Realize, of course, that this is just the first draft and I imagine things will be changed, added or deleted.

Best
Rob
(06-05-2017 05:04 PM)RJNorton Wrote: [ -> ]
(06-05-2017 04:10 PM)Anita Wrote: [ -> ]As to "Yet, trying to find details of how to define that spirit are maddeningly thin.", I came across this article a while ago but don't have access. Have you seen it?

"Tracing the Roots of Lincoln's Democratic Vision"
Joseph R. Fornieri
OAH Magazine of History (2009) 23 (1): 11-16.

Anita, please go here and scroll down to p. 11.

Thank you for the link Roger! Good article.
(06-05-2017 08:46 PM)Rob Wick Wrote: [ -> ]Anita,

Thanks for the information. I do have Fornieri's books and had planned to consult them for the article.

As for your question on Tarbell and Turner, I don't think a case can be made that Tarbell was directly influenced by Turner. I've never seen any references to him by her in her papers (realizing, of course, that much of her McClure's correspondence was destroyed in 1917 when the magazine moved offices) but there was no personal correspondence in her papers either.

As a preview, here's portions of what I've written in the article.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was born November 6, 1857, in the northwestern Pennsylvania community of Hatch Hollow. She recalled in her autobiography, All in the Day’s Work, that had the Panic of 1857 not occurred, she would have been born in Iowa, where her parents, Franklin and Sarah Tarbell, planned to move. “Like all young married people of pioneer ancestry and experience having their way to make my parents wanted land,” Tarbell wrote. “Land of their own combined with what my father could make at his profession as a teacher and his trade as a joiner, meant future security. It was the proved way of the early American.” In the wake of the panic, Tarbell’s mother was forced to remain in Pennsylvania.
The aborted move was Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis in practice. Although each pursued different paths in obtaining their Progressive credentials—Tarbell with the journalist’s pen and Turner in the role of the academic—both believed Lincoln embodied a spirit of democracy peculiar to the Northwest Territory. Tarbell and Turner held a shared belief as to what the frontier meant to Lincoln’s development as a man, first in Kentucky where no one ever fathomed that Lincoln could end up in the White House; then to the heavy woods of Indiana where Lincoln grew from boy to young man, and finally to Illinois, where, thanks to those frontier influences, Lincoln became the man who would lead the country through its most divisive time.


And later

Both also saw Lincoln’s frontier experience through an economic prism. In 1903, Turner wrote in the Atlantic Monthly a comparison of the pioneer life of Andrew Jackson and Lincoln. “Jackson’s democracy was contentious, individualistic, and it sought the ideal of local self-government and expansion.” Lincoln’s on the other hand, could thrive only on the development of industry and the rise of communities, Turner argued.
“To widen the area of the clearing, to contend with one another for the mastery of the industrial resources of the rich provinces, to struggle for a place in the ascending movement of society, to transmit one’s offspring the chance for education, for industrial betterment, for the rise in life which the hardships of the pioneer existence denied to the pioneer himself, these were some of the ideals of the region to which Lincoln came,” Turner wrote.
Lincoln, Tarbell noted, was committed to the use of capital by all levels of society. For Lincoln, capital was not “brewed in a bowl by bankers and brokers” only for themselves. Rather, Lincoln, whom Tarbell argued knew very well what she termed “the dignity of labor,” believed that capital was subservient to labor and was an equal benefit for all those on the frontier who attempted to work their way into prosperity by the sweat of their brow or, as in Lincoln’s case, by the development of their mind. These sentiments, Tarbell noted, became evident to Lincoln as he studied the world around him growing into manhood on the Indiana frontier.
It becomes evident that the lens that Turner and Tarbell viewed both their own world and the world that Lincoln inhabited was sharpened by their own Progressive beliefs. While Turner and Tarbell accepted the role capitalism played in American society, both expressed concern with the rise of the industrial baron and his effects on American democracy. For Turner, the vast resources that America enjoyed “has produced the rise of those captains of industry whose success in consolidating economic power now raises the question as to whether democracy under such conditions can survive.” Turner worriedly asked “is there in reality evolving such a concentration of economic and social power in the hands of a comparatively few men as may make political democracy an appearance rather than a reality.”
Tarbell, who published her two-volume history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company a year after Turner’s article appeared, was blunter in her assessment of the nation’s current economic leaders and their effect on democracy. Calling the period in which Turner’s article on democracy appeared “an Age of Banditry,” Tarbell credited big business for having the far-sightedness to see what would be necessary to control the newly-discovered wealth of ore, coal and oil, but noted they only exploited what others had discovered, i.e., the “hundreds upon hundreds of prospectors, with knap sacks on their backs and picks in their hands, hundreds and hundreds of wildcatters, drilling holes in the ground” who found the wealth, which then was seized by the “bandits.”


Realize, of course, that this is just the first draft and I imagine things will be changed, added or deleted.

Best
Rob

Thanks for sharing this Rob. Important subject and well-written. You are weaving together a number of concepts that I've had a hard time connecting. i.e. Lincoln's vision of democracy-critical to winning the war; the influences of progressive thinkers such as Turner and Tarbell in understanding the importance of Lincoln's unique vision as a model for the country; and the distinction between the Frontier experience and that unique to the Northwest Territory. As you so well stated " Although each pursued different paths in obtaining their Progressive credentials—Tarbell with the journalist’s pen and Turner in the role of the academic—both believed Lincoln embodied a spirit of democracy peculiar to the Northwest Territory."

Looking forward to the completed article.
I second Angela!!
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